By Sara Ging

The dog days summer were far from over Aug. 29 in Huntington.

The 7th Annual VetDogs Golf Classic kicked off at Huntington Country Club on Monday, and since its inception in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1 million for the Smithtown nonprofit organization, which trains service dogs and places them with veterans and first responders. Total funds raised by the Golf Classic for America’s VetDogs was not immediately known at the time of publication.

Ret. Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca and her service dog Liberty smile at the golf fundrasier in Huntington. Photo by Sara Ging
Ret. Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca and her service dog Liberty smile at the golf fundrasier in Huntington. Photo by Sara Ging

Two veterans who received service dogs from the nonprofit were in attendance as guests of honor at the Golf Classic. Retired Army Maj. Peter Way and Retired Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca both credit their dogs with improving their quality of life tremendously.

Way lost his right leg in 2014 due to complications from an injury sustained during active duty service in Afghanistan in 2003, and got his dog Rory right around the time he was discharged from service. “It’s unbelievable all that he does for me,” Way said at the event. “He’s hands when I need them, he’s a leg when I need it. … He adapts and takes on new stuff constantly, learns what I need and works with it.”

In addition to helping him adjust to his prosthetic leg, Way credits Rory with helping him cope with his post traumatic stress disorder and reintegrate socially.

“I thought of myself as highly functional, but I was highly dysfunctional,” Way said of his recovery process before Rory. “I had successfully cut myself off from just about everybody.” With Rory’s support, Way is now very socially and physically active. He is in training to potentially compete in the Paralympic biathlon, and has been on the VetDogs board since 2015.

Monts de Oca spent 10 years in the Navy before being medically retired for injuries and illness in 2013. She got her dog Liberty in 2014. Like Way, she credits her dog with helping her both physically and emotionally.

“I just wasn’t living my life anymore, because I was in pain and I was sick all the time,” Monts de Oca says. “She’s my lifeline. She got me moving again.” Liberty is specifically trained to help with mobility, balance, and to get help in the case of emergency.

VetDogs began in 2003 as Guide Dog Foundation project, and became a separate entity in 2006. Some staff, resources, and training facilities are still shared between the two Smithtown-based charities. Guide Dog Foundation began in 1946 with the aim of helping visually impaired veterans of World War II, and eventually expanded to serve civilians with visual impairment as well.

Navy Seal Cadet Corps, NY LPD 21st Division, presenting colors for the national anthem on the green during the America’s VetDogs fundraiser. Photo by Sara Ging
Navy Seal Cadet Corps, NY LPD 21st Division, presenting colors for the national anthem on the green during the America’s VetDogs fundraiser. Photo by Sara Ging

Unlike Guide Dog Foundation, which only trains guide dogs for the visually impaired, VetDogs raises and trains a number of different kinds of service dogs to help with balance issues, hearing impairment, seizures, and PTSD, among other disabilities. The cost of preparing each dog to work as a service dog is estimated at more than $50,000. This includes not only the rigorous specialized training period that takes place during three to four months, but also the process of breeding the dogs, raising them as puppies until they’re old enough for training, and funding a two-week intensive program on the Smithtown campus to teach veterans to work effectively with their dogs. Some dogs are trained to help treat or mitigate multiple issues, depending on the needs of each veteran. VetDogs also covers any necessary retraining and some preventative medical costs for the dogs.

Katherine Fritz, director of development, said there is never a cost to applicants who receive guide dogs.

Golfer Jim Barling has participated in the VetDogs Golf Classic at the Huntington Country Club all seven years. He is on the golf committee that organizes the event each year and considers it a success story, with local golfers and sponsors coming from Huntington, Brookville, and Northport. Participation is limited by the size of the green, so the tournament is limited to about 130 people. He said there is never any trouble filling those spots.

“We sell out every year,” Barling said. While there are new participants, he estimates that 80 percent of golfers return yearly.

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